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pound;5.7bn building plans in logjam

Projects continued to be approved by the Learning and Skills Council even after its three-year budget was exceeded

The full extent of the funding crisis for further education college buildings was revealed this week as the Skills Secretary John Denham said projects worth pound;5.7 billion were in the queue for cash.

College buildings continued to receive approval even after the value of the pound;2.3bn, three-year budget had been exceeded by the Learning and Skills Council, it emerged.

At least pound;700m of spending in excess of this budget has received approval in principle, according to figures in Mr Denham's statement to Parliament on Wednesday.

The final figure is likely to be higher, but the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills was unable to disclose the total value of projects already given final approval.

But 79 college projects worth a total of pound;2.7bn have been given approval in principle, while a further pound;300m of spending was authorised by the council at its meeting on Wednesday.

Demand for new buildings is so high that a further 65 colleges have bids totalling pound;3bn waiting for approval, although it is likely these would fall into funding rounds beyond 2010-11, when it is not known how much capital will be available.

Some colleges which have already seen schemes approved in principle are likely to face delays of more than two years as the funding body attempts to prioritise projects which up until now have been treated on a first- come, first-served basis.

"There are many more schemes currently in preparation than can be funded in this spending round," Mr Denham said. "It is clear that even at current record levels of funding, not all schemes can be implemented on the timescales originally envisaged."

He said the Association of Colleges (AoC) would be asked to help draw up plans to decide which projects should proceed first. Martin Doel, the association's chief executive, said: "We would encourage Government to identify where possible additional funds might be secured to sustain this programme and allow colleges to do what they do supremely well - respond to the needs of business, individuals and communities."

Building plans for colleges in Stoke-on-Trent, Coulsdon in Surrey, west Kent, Liverpool, Solihull, Northampton and two projects in Bolton were given final approval at the LSC council meeting on Wednesday, but Mr Denham indicated that their phasing may have to take place over five years.

David Collins, principal of South Cheshire College and AoC president, said the funding scheme should not have been allowed to progress so far without realising the extent of the demand and planning for it.

He said: "Questions have to be asked about the administration of the scheme by the Learning and Skills Council. There clearly was no realistic assessment at the outset about the scale of the problem being matched to the scale of the capital project.

"There are going to be a large number of worried principals and governing bodies who have their projects approved in principal and have undertaken significant work.

"Additional funds for college buildings would seem to be a better opportunity for the economy than the purchase of toxic bank debts."

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